Um, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Tenochtitlan anymore…
And neither are the Aztecs. That’s so 1521. Cortés, a bunch of pissed off Aztec enemies, and smallpox did their dirty work. 500 years later, things look a tad different on what was once Lake Texcoco.
Mexico City and its suburbs have 22 million people, and sometimes it seemed like all of them were on the road. Commuting anywhere has to factor in traffic delays. Things move so slowly mobile storefronts (folks on foot) wander around and among the cars, trucks, and motorcycles, giving impromptu performances and hawking anything they can carry.
One thing Cortés and company brought with their conquering army was Catholicism. The impact on Mexican culture is inescapable, especially in the guise of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Even this garbage truck driver seeks her protection.
Back in the Aztec days, Texcoco wasn’t the only source of lakefront property. To the south was Lake Xochimilco (sow·chee·meel·kow) and Lake Chalco. Mexico City has subsumed them too. All that’s left of Lake Xochimilco are a few miles of canals and some ponds here and there. This process was triggered all the way back in the Aztec days by the creation of Chinampas, floating islands created for agricultural purposes.
These days, apart from being known as a suburb of Mexico City, Xochimilco is famous for its Trajineras. These boats are like gondolas on steroids, complete with boatmen pushing them around with long, sturdy poles. They are the Mexican version of party boats.
And boy, do the Mexicans like to party.
Come the weekend, and we were there on a Saturday, Mexicans flock to the Trajineras in such numbers that the canal traffic jams are even worse than those on the surface streets. Most of them appeared to have family groups, small or extended, enjoying a picnic (or not, based on the bored look on some kids’ faces) on the canal as the boatmen poled their way through the party armada.
Sprinkled on boats among the family groups, or sometimes with a group at the end of a Trajinera, small and large mariachi bands added their festive flair to the proceedings. All in all, it was marginally organized chaos. Not really my thing.
But then, my attitude was likely skewed by a couple of incidents.
First, due to the traffic, boats were constantly colliding with each other. Think aquatic bumper cars. I had an arm ever so slightly resting on the edge of the boat when another came up from behind, collided, and gave me a nasty pinch and a colorful five-day bruise. Not fun.
The bigger bummer was photography related. It seems these boats were not entirely waterproof, or perhaps collected rain. I discovered this the hard way, when someone pointed out my camera bag was sitting on the deck in a pool of water. The good news was I had my camera in hand, and the flooding affected no spare lenses, so no expensive disasters. The bad news I didn’t discover until that evening.
When checking out the bag to see what got wet, it came down to a lens cleaning kit which was no big deal, and my camera’s battery charger. That was a big deal, as the charger wasn’t working. I had only a couple of spare batteries, enough for a couple more days of shooting. But this was on the first day of a 12-day tour. It was a major “oh shit” moment. It looked like I’d be restricted to shooting with my cell phone. While my phone takes good pictures, its focal range leaves much to be desired. Oh well.
But all was not lost. I had noticed, on that first day, on the other end of the Trajinera, another guy in our tour group who was also shooting with a “real” camera. The next day I introduced myself, checked out his camera, and pled my misfortune. It turned out he was also a Nikon shooter, his camera battery was of the same sort as mine, and his battery charger had a second slot. Being a nice guy, he was willing to help me out with my battery charging problem. Crisis averted. (Thanks again, Derreck.) Several days later I rechecked my charger, found it had finally dried out, and was working again.
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
I mentioned the Virgin of Guadalupe before. Who is she, and what’s the big deal?
It is related to apparitions of the Virgin Mary described by Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, one of the first Aztecs that converted to Christianism. They occurred between December 9 and 12, 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac, a small upland near Mexico City. The apparitions asked Juan Diego to have a church erected at the site in her honor. In the full story, there were five apparition appearances, a dubious archbishop, and a couple of miracles.
I do not pretend to understand the lure of religious shrines, but the basilica is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world.
Initially, a small chapel was built on site, then in 1557, a bigger chapel replaced this first temple, and in 1622, a consecrated sanctuary was built. Officially known as the “Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey,” the Old Basilica was begun in 1695 and was finished in 1709. The New Basilica was built between 1974 and 1976, both to handle larger crowds, and because the Old Basilica was becoming unstable due to sinking foundations.
A shrine implies a religious artifact, and the most visited Catholic shrine must have a doozy. In this case the artifact is the alleged cloak of Juan Diego, which was miraculously imprinted with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe – a title requested by the apparition. In the New Basilica, this relic is approached via moving walkway, behind a screen that hides the passers-by from the view of any congregation taking in a religious service.
There’s no denying the Mexicans are an artistic people. Passing through the city it’s common to encounter sculptures, murals, and monuments. Frida Kahlo shows up a lot in murals – the eyebrows are unmistakable. (But not always in places conducive to pictures from bus windows…)
Frida, for a time, was married to another well known Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. While we didn’t have time to visit Frida’s museum, (even though it was walking distance from where we had lunch,) we did visit a gallery with some of Diego’s art, including a mural that had been relocated from a building damaged in an earthquake.
The bulk of the mural contains famous people and events from Mexico’s history.
In the center of the mural, the skeletal woman is the Dame Catrina (“La Calavera Catrina“), a figure parodying the Mexican high-society obsession with European customs in the early 1900s. Catrina has Diego as a child in her right hand, and behind Diego is Frida Kahlo. To her left is her original creator, José Posada.
Catrina is a common figure in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. I found this pair of dandies in the window of a jewelry store and expect it’s a permanent display.
The Metropolitan Cathedral is the oldest church in Mexico, and if you have a good arm it’s a stone’s throw from where the Aztec Templo Mayor (their big pyramid shaped temple) once stood. In fact, it’s likely that the stone used to build the cathedral came from the pyramid.
It took 240 years to build, from 1573 to 1813, so it makes sense that it has various architectural styles. But although it’s stood for 450 years its foundations are in peril. The cathedral – much like the rest of Mexico City – is sinking into the lakebed upon which it was built as the aquafers are drained.
The interior, like many Spanish cathedrals of the era is ornate, and gold leaf is near as common as house paint.
There’s not much left of it…
Templo Mayor was built up six times in the Aztec era, with new chieftains building on top of the existing pyramids. Wikipedia suggests that most of what is known about the temple is based on the historical record, without saying what the source of the historical is.
In the early years of the Spanish occupation, Tenochtitlan was largely torn down, with the materials used to erect Spanish style buildings. Most of the ruins were built over. When proper excavation began in the later 20th century, some of the newer buildings themselves needed to be removed for site access. These days, artifacts from these excavations can be found at museums on site.
But for the tourists, Mexican or otherwise, enterprising performers still put on a show…
… although I have a sneaking suspicion that Aztec warriors didn’t wear Spandex.